Net Neutrality: A Solution to an Existing Problem

While AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have argued—with incredible message discipline—that network neutrality is “a solution in search of a problem,” that’s not true.

There are many concrete examples of network neutrality violations around the world. These network neutrality violations include ISPs blocking websites and applications, ISPs discriminating in favor of some applications and against others, and ISPs charging arbitrary tolls on technology companies.

We have seen network neutrality violations all over the world.

Even in the U.S., there have been some major violations by small and large ISPs. These include:

  • The largest ISP, Comcast secretly interfering with peer-to-peer technologies, including some of the most popular basic technologies used to distribute online TV and music (2005-2008);
  • A small telephone ISP called Madison River blocking Vonage, a company providing competing telephone service online (2005);
  • Apple blocking the application Skype on the iPhone, subject to a secret contract with AT&T, a company that competes with Skype in providing telephone service (2008-2009);
  • Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile blocking the functionality of Google Wallet on Nexus devices, while all three of those ISPs are part of a competing mobile payments joint venture called Isis (late 2011-today);
  • and Comcast’s disputes with Level 3 and Netflix over termination fees and the appearance that Comcast is deliberately congesting its network connections to force Netflix to pay Comcast for an acceptable connection (2010-today).

In other countries, including democracies, there are numerous violations. In Canada, rather than seeking a judicial injunction, a telephone ISP used its control of the wires to block the website of a union member during a strike against that very company in July 2005. In the Netherlands, in 2011, the dominant ISP expressed interest in blocking against U.S.-based Whatsapp and Skype.

In the European Union, widespread violations affect at least 1 in 5 users. That is the conclusion of a report issued in June of 2012 by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), a body composed of the regulatory agencies of each EU country. Most of these restrictions were on online phone services, peer-to-peer technologies (which are used not only by copyright pirates, but also in a variety of well-known technologies, including Skype and several Amazon cloud services), as well as other specific applications “such as gaming, streaming, e-mail or instant messaging service.”

ISPs block and discriminate against applications and websites even in countries that require disclosure of the violations and even in countries with far more competition among ISPs than the US. A recent Oxford dissertation on the topic explores the wide-scale blocking and discrimination in the United Kingdom, a market with both considerable competition among ISPs and robust disclosure laws.

Essentially, a specific rule that would be upheld in court is necessary protect network neutrality and address a major, global problem.

* Footnote: Thanks to Stanford professor Barbara van Schewick, whose recent letter to the FCC inspired my thinking in this post.

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